Fathering in America: What’s a Dad Supposed to Do?
By Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.
Americans seem more confused than ever about the role of fathers in children’s lives. On the one hand, more and more fathers are absent for all or significant periods of time. According to the 2006 Census, 23 percent of children under 18 do not live with their biological father and the number is climbing. On the other hand, search “fatherhood” on the web and you’ll find dozens of websites dedicated to teaching, encouraging, and supporting men in becoming more nurturing and involved fathers.
Meanwhile, many TV sitcoms and animated shows continue to portray dads as dolts or, at best, well-meaning but misguided large children whose wives have to mother them as well as their offspring. If an alien in another universe happens to tune in to The Simpsons, Everyone Loves Raymond, Family Guy, etc., he (it?) will come away with a rather skewed idea of how men function in American families.
I’ll leave it to the sociologists to explain the many and complicated variables of race, class, gender issues, social policy, employment issues, and governmental interventions that are at the root of the diverging trends and the pejorative TV scripts. It’s enough to note that there is a major rethinking of fathers’ roles and responsibilities going on within the context of lots of rethinking in America.
We may be reconsidering how family should be defined. We may be confused about gender roles. We may be struggling with knowing how to parent well in a complicated time. But in the midst of all this confusion, there is a growing consensus that what kids need, at least, is clear. Kids need their fathers as well as their mothers.
Regardless of whether the father lives with his children, active participation in raising those children is good for everyone. The kids become healthier adults. The fathers come to a fuller and more complex maturity. The mothers have a reliable co-parent to share the responsibilities and challenges as well as the accomplishments of parenting. How does this idea of “involved father” translate to daily life? Current research points to the following practical guidelines for responsible fatherhood.
What’s a Father to Do?
- Embrace your responsibility. Once you are a father, you are a father for life. The knowledge of fatherhood changes a man. It can be a source of pride and maturity or a source of shame and regret. Even if you have good reasons for not being actively involved, acknowledging your paternity is a minimal gift you can provide to your child. With it come many legal, psychological, and financial benefits. If you want to be in your child’s life, it also protects your rights to have time with your child should you and the child’s mother have a falling out.
- Be there. In study after study, kids consistently say they would like to have more time with their dads. Regardless of whether a dad shares a home with the children and their mother, the kids need dad time. Working together on a chore or simply hanging out can be as meaningful as attending events or having adventures. Kids want to know their fathers. Just as important, they want their fathers to know them.
- Be there throughout their childhoods. There is no time in a child’s life that doesn’t count. Research has shown that even infants know and respond to their fathers differently than they do to their mothers. The bond you make with a baby sets the foundation for a lifetime. As the kids get older, they’ll need you in different ways, but they will always need you. Insistent toddler, curious preschooler, growing child, prickly adolescent: Each age and stage will have its challenges and rewards. Kids whose parents let them know that they are worth their parents’ time and attention are kids who grow up healthy and strong. Boys and girls who grow up with attention and approval from their dads as well as their moms tend to be more successful in life.
- Respond to the needs of the kids, not your relationship with their mother. Regardless of whether you are getting along with your girlfriend or wife (present or ex), your relationship with the kids is exactly that: your relationship with the kids. The kids need predictability. They need care. They need a loving relationship with you. They need whatever financial support you can provide. None of these things should depend on whether you’ve had a disagreement or fight with their mom. None of these things should ever be withheld as a way to get even with her.
- Be in a respectful and appreciative relationship with their mother. Being a good dad is certainly possible both inside and outside of marriage. Regardless of whether you and their mom can work out how to be a committed couple, you can support each other as parents. Kids grow best when their parents treat each other with respect and appreciation. The kids then don’t feel torn between the two people they love.
- Do your financial share. Kids need to be fed, clothed, housed, and cared for. Children whose parents provide for them live better lives, feel valued, and have better relationships with both their parents. They need the role model of a responsible male acting responsibly. Just as they need you to be present in their lives, regardless of whether you live with their mom, they also need you to live up to financial obligations to the very best of your ability.
- Balance discipline with fun. Some dads make the mistake of being only the disciplinarian. The kids grow up afraid of their dads and unable to see the man behind the rules. An equal and opposite mistake is being so focused on fun that you become one of the kids, leaving their mother always to be the heavy. Kids need to have fathers who know both how to set reasonable, firm limits and how to relax and have a good time. Give yourself and the kids the stability that comes with clear limits and the good memories that come with play.
- Be a role model of adult manhood. Both boys and girls need you as a role model for what it means to be adult and male. Make no mistake: The kids are observing you every minute. They are taking in how you treat others, how you manage stress and frustrations, how you fulfill your obligations, and whether you carry yourself with dignity. Consciously or not, the boys will become like you. The girls will look for a man very much like you. Give them an idea of manhood (and relationships) you can be proud of.
Beyond these considerations, there is little agreement about how an “ideal father” should behave. It doesn’t seem to matter (in terms of the mental health of children) whether fathers work out of the home or stay home with the kids. It doesn’t seem to matter what job a dad has or how much money a dad makes, as long as he is doing his best. It doesn’t seem to matter what his interests and skills are, as long as he shares them with his children. It doesn’t seem to matter whether a father is very physically affectionate or loves more quietly as long as the kids know that he most certainly cares about them. What matters is for fathers to be committed to their children and involved with them over time. When fathers take that responsibility seriously, their children are more likely to do well, and the fathers have few regrets.